Have you ever wondered about the painted quilt-like squares hung on outdoor buildings and barns in Augusta County?
Perhaps you know they are called barn quilts, but you have always wondered what their significance is.
A relatively new folk art form begun in the late 1990s, the barn quilt is a reimagination of the long-standing tradition of quilting. Sally Shomo, of Staunton, has been painting these quilts since 2016, many of which hang on barns and in homes throughout the Valley.
After 31 years of teaching agricultural education and Future Farmers of America, Shomo retired to pursue new hobbies such as barn quilts. Upon a visit to her seasonal produce stand, the Shomo Fresh Market, one will see an easel displaying miniatures of her barn quilts next to tables lined with produce and bins brimming with melons and sweet corn.
What began as a personal creative venture to decorate her father-in-law’s barn evolved into a business when neighbors, friends and customers saw her finished work.
With more than 250 completed, Shomo’s barn quilts align with the original intention of the art form. The painted squares not only accentuate the rural settings, but also the community and history within it.
The creation of barn quilts is credited to Donna Sue Groves, of Adams County, Ohio, who aspired to unite her family’s Appalachian heritage with her farm in a way that expanded to her entire rural community.
As a child, Groves and her brother passed time by pointing out different barns on their way to visit family in Crede, West Virginia. In their car games, they were always especially attracted to barns with advertisements for products like tobacco and RC Cola painted on them.
These barn advertisements eventually became Groves’ inspiration for the barn quilt.
In 1989, Groves and her mother purchased a property with their own barn in Adams County. Groves felt the barn was ugly and needed beautifying. It was this moment that she devised the idea, in the fashion of these old advertisements, to paint a quilt square onto the barn, like the ones her grandmother used to sew.
A few years later, Groves finally painted the quilt square on her mother’s barn and simultaneously mobilized her county to form a barn quilt trail to increase tourism in the area. Today, barn quilts can be seen everywhere, and such trails now exist in 48 states.
Shomo was inspired by these quilts and decided to try one for herself in 2016.
“I did some research and found the right media to use, which for me is PVC board,” Shomo said. “I did two two-by-twos first, just to see whether I could conquer it and do a good enough job. I found out that I liked it. And, by that time, we had talked Charles [father-in-law] into letting us put one on the barn.”
After Shomo created five barn quilts in total for their farm, interest arose, and word spread.
“Once people started seeing it, that’s how my business started,” Shomo said. “People would say, ‘Hey, I want one, too!’”
Most of Shomo’s quilts are made using a six-by-six grid, though she said the grids entirely depend on the pattern chosen. Many of the patterns are based on an eight-point star, which is trademark to quilting.
On each barn quilt, Shomo paints three coatings per section and makes sure the paint has time to cure naturally.
“I’m interested in making sure that their barn quilt is as good as I can possibly make it,” Shomo said. “I don’t want paint bleeds. I don’t want crooked lines. I want it to be as close to perfect as I can make it.”
Shomo does not sell already-made barn quilts, but instead, each project is personal to and commissioned by her customers.
“People come, they order, and they tell me the size, colors, and pattern they want,” Shomo said.
To solidify a design idea, they can flip through a scrapbook with pictures of every quilt Shomo has made as well as a color chart and pattern books. For Shomo, the creativity emerges in helping her customers bring their ideas to life.
The barn quilts embody a unique significance to each person that is often, but not always, rooted in heritage.
“Some people have patterns that truly mean something to them,” Shomo said.
Shomo recalled painting a barn quilt for a customer who wanted one that resembled her grandmother’s quilt, which she had given to her son.
“She missed the quilt, so she asked if I could reproduce her grandmother’s pattern on a barn quilt,” Shomo said. “She wanted to see that quilt every day on her outdoor shed from her kitchen window.”
“Other quilt patterns are chosen because people just like them,” Shomo continued. “They will look through my photo album of quilts and they’ll say, ‘Oh, I like that one. I really like this pattern.’”
In about three weeks, the quilts are ready.
One of Shomo’s favorite aspects of barn quilt making is seeing her customer’s excitement when their vision is realized. She welcomes them to her home and unveils the finished product.
“It’s fun to see the customers face when they first see the barn quilt,” Shomo said. “When they pull up to the house and come in, I’ll have the barn quilt sitting somewhere, like on the porch. They come in and of course their eyes are searching for where that barn quilt is.
“To see their expression at the finished product, that’s what always makes it,” she said. “What makes me happy is that what they’re getting is exactly what they wanted.”
Asked what inspires her creative work on the barn quilts, Shomo said it is her own family heritage of her mother’s quilting.
“My mother was very good at making quilts and matching colors to make the quilt,” Shomo said. “I remember going with her to the quilt shop and picking out fabric. There were so many different fabric colors, but she was very good at it. I would like to think that maybe I got a little bit of her talent for choosing what colors look good together.”
Upon further reflection, Shomo said beyond customers and her mother, her inspiration is she loves quilts.
“It’s fun for me to pull that tape off and see how the colors meld together and create a quilt pattern,” she said. “It is like a seamstress when she’s making a quilt, seeing it all come together.”